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Slap on a Flu Patch? New Vaccine Would Skip the Needle

Image: Micro-needle patch

Some research suggests that new micro-needle patches could be more effective than flu shots. Georgia Institute of Technology

A new patch could let people ditch needles and give themselves the flu vaccine — opening the possibility of getting your annual flu immunization in the mail instead of at the doctor's office.

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology developed the patch and found it works well when people give it to themselves. People were able to use the device correctly with little instruction and said they liked it a whole lot better than a flu shot.

“Our dream is that each year there would be flu vaccine patches available in stores or sent by mail for people to self-administer,” said Mark Prausnitz, a professor of biomolecular engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “People could take them home and apply them to the whole family. We want to get more people vaccinated, and we want to relieve health care professionals from the burden of giving these millions of vaccinations.”

The patch is covered with an array of 50 tiny needles needles that barely penetrate the skin, and this initial study was testing how people used the patch, not how well it delivered vaccine. But other research by the group suggests it may be even more effective than a flu shot.

The researchers think it not only would save money — most of the cost of a shot is paying a doctor, nurse or pharmacist to deliver it — but it should also greatly increase the number of people getting flu shots.

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Right now, fewer than half of all Americans who should get a flu vaccine actually get one. In this study, 46 percent of people said they’d get a flu shot, but 65 percent said they’d use a patch-based vaccine.

Rudy Garcia says he hates needles, but he didn’t mind the patch so much. He is one of the 91 volunteers who tested it. “It actually feels better than having a needle go in,” he told NBC News.

Each volunteer tried pressing three patches into his or her own arm, and a staffer applied a fourth. None contained real vaccine. Everyone also got a dummy shot of saline solution delivered via syringe.

People did a better job of using the patch when they used an applicator that made a clicking sound, but most did well enough to be allowed to use the vaccine on their own, the team reports in an upcoming issue of the journal Vaccine.

“It was awesome,” said Christy White, a 55-year-old legal secretary who took part in the trial. “It did not hurt, not at all.”

Georgia Tech’s James Norman tried it on himself. “I found it to be less painful, and the sensation passed by much more quickly than having a one-inch needle go in and out of your arm,” he said.

On a pain scale of 1 to 100, the volunteers gave the patch a 1.5 rating and they gave the needle-based injection a 15.

The volunteers also answered questions about how the process went and whether they’d use a patch in real life.

Among those who intended to get vaccinated, 55 percent said they'd prefer to put on a patch at home, 12 percent said they'd like a healthcare worker to do it and 9 percent said they'd like to do it themselves with a healthcare worker present. Twenty-four percent said they'd rather get a flu shot.

“This means that 76 percent preferred microneedle-patch vaccination over (shots) and that 64 percent preferred self-vaccination over vaccination by a healthcare worker," the researchers wrote.

“If this holds for the population as a whole, that would have a tremendous impact on preventing disease and the cost associated with both influenza and the vaccination process,” said Paula Frew, an assistant professor in the Emory University School of Medicine and a co-author of the study.

The researchers are working with a company to start tests with a real flu vaccine early next year. “We have a major vaccine manufacturer who will provide the vaccine, but we are not free to disclose the company name yet,” Norman said.

“Other studies from our group have shown the patch may be more effective than regular flu shots, because the vaccine is delivered to the skin,” Norman added. The skin is loaded with immune cells and while not all vaccines work well when given into the skin, studies do suggest that flu vaccines can.

The patch could also be shipped and stored at room temperature, unlike flu shots. “It's exciting to see how one device could help protect more people against flu and reduce costs at the same time,” Norman said.

“I was thinking about kids. If they could have their vaccines with this little patchy thing, it would be great for the kids,” White said.

Public health officials struggle to persuade Americans to get their annual flu vaccines and many agree that alternative vaccination methods may offer a way to help get more people to do it.

Garcia is one of the more than 50 percent of Americans who do not get a recommended flu shot every year. He’s not sure he’d get one just because it was delivered by patch and not as a shot, but he’d consider it.

“If it were delivered, I think being able to self-administer it and not having to do a doctors’ office visit is nice,” said Garcia, a Los Angeles-based insurance consultant.

“I would send it to my kids,” agreed White. “They’re always (saying) they’re not going to get the flu vaccine, but maybe if I had it delivered to their homes they would do it.”

Several groups are working on needle-free vaccines, and of course there are oral polio vaccines, oral drops to protect against rotavirus and a nasal spray called FluMist for influenza.